LanzaTech achieves breakthrough with first batch of sustainable jet fuel to be produced from ethanol
Wed 14 Sept 2016 – Alcohol-to-jet (ATJ) fuel developer LanzaTech has succeeded in producing a batch of 1,500 US gallons of low carbon jet fuel from its ethanol product, which will now be used for additional testing as part of the ASTM fuel certification process required for commercial aviation use. The Chicago-based company and its partner Virgin Atlantic are working with Boeing, aircraft engine manufacturers and others involved in the process towards approval now anticipated in 2017, which would include a proving flight using the fuel. LanzaTech’s technology captures waste carbon monoxide gases emitted from steel production plants and converts them into ethanol through fermentation, which can then be used as a feedstock for a variety of products, including aviation fuel. The Lanzanol batch was produced at a facility in China and shipped to the US, where it went through a final conversion to jet fuel by the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).
Converting a gallon of ethanol produces half a gallon of jet fuel, and LanzaTech estimates its technology could be retrofitted to 65% of the world’s steel mills, which collectively produce in the region of 1.7 billion tonnes of steel each year. The waste gases produced through the chemistry of steel making offer the potential to produce 30 billion gallons of ethanol worldwide annually. If converted into jet fuel, this could produce nearly a fifth of total global aviation fuel use of around 80 billion gallons, says the company.
Virgin Atlantic conducted the world’s first biofuel flight in early 2008 and its partnership with LanzaTech to develop a commercially viable low carbon jet fuel goes back to 2011 (see article).
Commenting on the breakthrough, the airline’s President, Sir Richard Branson, said: “This is a real game-changer for aviation and could significantly reduce the industry’s reliance on oil within our lifetime. We chose to partner with LanzaTech because of its impressive sustainability profile and the commercial potential of the jet fuel.
“Our understanding of low carbon fuels has developed rapidly over the last decade, and we are closer than ever before to bringing a sustainable product to the market for commercial use by Virgin Atlantic and other global airlines.”
Although the ATJ isobutanol pathway developed by Gevo was certified by ASTM in April in blends up to 30% (see article), LanzaTech’s ethanol to jet fuel product requires a separate approvals process. Virgin Atlantic reports the ATJ fuel has now passed all its initial fit-for-purpose performance tests “with flying colours” and the data will shortly be shared with aircraft and engine manufacturers, as well as other parties, as part of the next stage of the approvals process. In addition to being used for the proving flight, the fuel batch will provide sufficient quantities for further testing if required.
A further 2,500 gallons of ethanol has been purchased from a third party that has also been converted into jet fuel to back up the testing process.
The two partners point to initial independent analyses by international renewable energy consultants E4tech and Ecofys, and also Michigan Technological University, which suggest the fuel could result in lifecycle carbon savings of 65% compared to fossil jet fuel.
The ethanol was produced at the joint venture Beijing Shougang LanzaTech New Energy Science & Technology Company facility. In 2013, it became the first biofuel plant in China to be certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) and the first of its kind anywhere in the world to receive certification for industrial carbon capture and utilisation (see article).
“Our partnership with LanzaTech symbolises Shougang’s desire to create a sustainable future for China where industrial growth and environmental benefits go hand in hand,” said the facility’s Chairman, Wang Tao. “Ethanol made from recycled carbon in China can now be used to fuel a plane in the United Kingdom, using technology from the United States. We are honoured to be part of this truly global partnership to provide new sustainable pathways for low carbon fuels that do not impact the food chain or land use.”
John Holladay, Transportation Sector Manager at Washington State-based PNNL, described the LanzaTech waste gas to jet fuel process as “almost magical”.
“Our long-term dream is making fuels and chemicals through recycling carbon,” he said. “PNNL is proud to be involved with the project through bringing catalyst technology that builds on LanzaTech’s fermentation technology and we look forward to seeing the technology powering jets in the near future.”
Commercialisation of the LanzaTech jet fuel product will begin once it has become certified for commercial aviation use. Although various options are currently being explored, Virgin Atlantic expressed hope that with sufficient government policy support and financial backing, the first LanzaTech jet fuel plant would be built in the UK. Funding for the production of the jet fuel batch came as a result of support from HSBC, the UK’s largest bank.
“We are proud to have provided support and funding to allow production of this innovative new fuel to move from sample size to small demo scale,” said HSBC CEO Antonio Simoes. “This breakthrough is testament to what can be achieved when different industries work together to address climate change and support the shift to a low-carbon economy.”
In other reaction, Peter Bakker, President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, said the venture demonstrated the innovative business leadership that the post-Paris world urgently needed. “Under the below50 sustainable fuels initiative, we look forward to more ground-breaking collaborations between investors, producers and consumers that will help scale up solutions to decarbonise the transport sector.”
Added James Beard, Climate and Aviation Specialist at WWF-UK: “Decarbonisation of heavy industry and aviation will be difficult, which makes converting industrial waste gases into low-carbon jet fuel a fascinating prospect. All airlines should pursue the development of genuinely sustainable, low-carbon fuels that are certified to minimise indirect land use change. UN aviation agency ICAO – meeting later this month in Montreal – needs to incentivise investment in sustainable solutions through the setting of global sustainability criteria for low-carbon aviation fuels, credited towards its climate goals.”
In June, WWF published a report based on research by the Stockholm Environment Institute that found there would be a sufficient supply of both sustainable alternative fuels and high-quality carbon offsets to meet the ICAO carbon-neutral goal from 2020 out to 2035.